Posted on August 5, 2010 by Tia Lalani

Bev Betkowski speaks with Augustana students about their summer jobs in the Rural Capacity Paid Intern Program.

Students share their energy with rural communities
By Bev Betkowski

For a history major like Shay Barker, it was an unusual move to take on a summer job of figuring out how to keep teenagers happy in a small town.

But the University of Alberta student is using her classroom skills to their fullest as she works with officials in Wainwright to help find ways to reach out to the community’s youth.

The job stemmed from a new internship program aimed at putting U of A students, their energy and their skills to work in rural Alberta.

“This hasn’t been an easy job,” Barker admitted. “But I’m meeting people, interviewing them and getting a first-person taste of research and enjoying it. I’ll take that back to university next year and be able to use it for class assignments.”

At the same time, she hopes to use her interest in local history in her work, to bring different generations together through shared community pride. “When you have a disconnected community you are not going to have that pride.”

Barker is one of three students from Augustana Campus taking part in the pilot project, known as the Rural Capacity Paid Intern Program. Supported by the U of A’s Alberta Centre for Sustainable Rural Communities and Alberta Agriculture and Rural Development, the program places students in rural communities that need a helping hand in building sustainability. That could range from designing a tourism package for a local hotel to researching alternate sources of water for a community—both are jobs being done by this year’s interns.

The idea is to bring “student power” to rural communities, which often struggle to find the resources to conduct research and prioritize their issues, get citizens involved and make decisions that could help the community’s survival, said Lars Hallstrom, director of the Augustana-based Alberta Centre for Sustainable Rural Communities.

“Students are motivated, interested and educated, and they have the skills that are analytical, technical and communicative. And they are under-utilized, which is why this rural program was created,” Hallstrom said.

While they can’t solve all of the problems faced by small-town Alberta, the students lend their brainpower and skills to developing plans of action for their assigned communities, he added. To do this, they get the support of faculty members and other university resources like libraries.

Paul Gauthier is putting his new degree in politics and economics to good use in the village of Heisler, where he is working with the council to address their most pressing issues: increasing the tax base and spurring development of lots that have been purchased but are lying empty.

He’s finding his job “a huge load” at times, but also interesting and ultimately rewarding.

“I feel by the end of the summer that I will at least have brought some new ideas to the table, and I want to go home at the end of the day and say I made that place a better place to live.”

Happily, the internship dovetails with his future plans to work in rural development, perhaps overseas. “This job gives me practical knowledge and has opened my eyes to a lot of things.” He’s learning to be a good listener and to form strategic partnerships which will benefit Heisler and eventually, any community he helps in future.

The third rural intern, Heather Holte, is heading into the world with a degree in psychology and plans to return to the U of A this fall to earn a master’s in speech pathology. But for the summer, she’s working in the east-central Alberta town of Hardisty, population 760.

Her duties include designing a welcome package for a new hotel, and researching new sources for water as the local lake shrinks. Despite the job’s learning curve, she’s familiar with rural Alberta, having grown up just down the road from Hardisty, and is eager to contribute to the health of the community.

“I grew up knowing how small communities work and and I really like the feeling of community you get here.” Holte plans to work in rural Alberta after she earns her master’s, and meanwhile, is using her undergraduate experience to tackle the work at hand.

“We’re taught to think critically, so I’m looking at factors that led to the situations the town has right now and what we might be able to do to get to a new place.”

The internship program not only reinforces the U of A’s commitment to rural engagement, but promotes a reciprocal relationship, “where we work with the communities, not just for them,” Hallstrom added.

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